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CHAPTER 13 – WITH THE RESISTANCE INTO PARIS
By the middle of August the allied forces had finally broken out of the bridge-head and were advancing deep into France. They would soon be reaching Paris. My mother, grandmother and uncle and his wife had remained in Paris when I left for England in 1940 and I was anxious about their fate. I wanted to get to Paris but it seemed the British 2nd Army was going to swing north into Belgium and the American 1st Army or the Free French Army would be advancing towards Paris. I asked my Company commander, Major Ball, for permission to try and attach myself to one of their formations. He said he could not officially give me permission but that if I gave him my word of honour that I would return to his Company as soon as feasible, he would “shut his eyes to my temporary absence”. Considering the conflicts I had had with him in Italy I was pleasantly surprised at his co-operation. But, ever cynical, I wander whether perhaps he was glad to get rid of a trouble-maker!
Making my way towards the American sector I came across a French Resistance maquis group who had fought their way from Brittany alongside the Americans. They were intending to push through gaps in the retreating German armies into Paris to assist the Resistance who had risen in Paris without waiting for the arrival of the allied regular forces. I explained my reasons for wanting to get to Paris to the captain of this Maquis group and I was allowed to join them. “An extra rifle is always welcome” he said.
As we pushed through gaps in the German lines we met no resistance except on two occasions. On the first, our way was barred by a German unit entrenched in some farm buildings. We surrounded the farm. After a brief exchange of fire during which three of our group were wounded a white sheet was waved from a window and about twenty German soldiers surrendered. We handed the prisoners over to the local Liberation Committee and moved on.
The other encounter was against a group of the Vichy Milice in a small town the name of which I forget.. The Milice had taken refuge in the local Police Prefecture and were being besieged by the local Resistance. The latter were poorly armed and asked for our help. They were meeting heavy fire from upstairs windows. The commander of our group ordered me and four others to go up to the third floor of a block of flats opposite and fire down on the Milice. Dashing up the stairs we knocked on the door of a flat facing the Milice’s building. The door was opened by two very frightened elderly ladies. While they cowered whimpering under a table we fired from their windows. Soon the miliciens surrendered. When they came out onto the street they were set upon by an enraged crowd which kicked, beat and stabbed most of them to death. Those who survived initially were lined up and shot. I had never witnessed such anger. Seeing my horror, one of my companions said, ‘ You don’t understand. These miliciens are the scum of the earth. They’re even worse than the Gestapo and the SS. They denounced their compatriots and they tortured fellow French men and women. You should hear some of the stories. These pigs arrested a 65 year old grandmother because they suspected her grandson was in the Resistance. They hung her from the ceiling by her thumbs. When she fainted they revived her and then hung her up again. She could not tell them where her grandson was because she didn’t know; but that did not stop them. She died of a heart attack hours later. Now perhaps you will understand. These pigs deserve no mercy.’ All the accounts of the occupation, oral and written are unanimous about the Milice. They were hated and despised and all over France they were being killed. People said trials were unnecessary; being a milicien was proof enough. I had to immunise myself from pity and sentiment. Civil wars – and this was a civil war – saw excesses on both sides. Before humanity could build a new happier and gentler society on the ruins of the old it would have to wade through rivers of blood. It was no use being sqeamish. All one could do was restrain these excesses as much as one could
One of those excesses I could not condone was the shaving of the heads of women alleged to have slept with Germans. In my view the rank and file German soldiers were ordinary human beings with no more responsibility for the war than conscripts in the allied armies. They and the women were human beings, often lonely and in need of love and affection. No doubt some of the women were opportunists using their liaisons to their advantage, but didn’t this happen all over the world? Sleeping with a German soldier was no more criminal than sleeping with a Frenchman. It was only criminal in the eyes of chauvinists and jingoists full of hatred for Germans rather than for Nazism. I suspected that many of the denunciations were motivated by spite, jealousy and the settling of old scores. Often those who did the denouncing had looked after their own skins and kept clear of resistance activities. The genuine Resisters, on the whole, did not approve of these head shavings. On one occasion I could not stop myself from stepping in and snatching the scissors from the woman doing the shaving crying, ‘Assez, cessez cela!’ I was surrounded by an angry crowd but my Resistance comrades supported me and dispersed them.
Our Resistance Group entered Paris by the Pont de Neuilly, just as the last shots in the battle for Paris were fired. Saying good bye to my Resistance comrades I made my way to Vincennes and found my mother and grandmother still in their flat. They were well, though undernourished and extremely surprised to see me in British uniform. The only communication between us after I got to England had been by pre-printed Red Cross postcards on which all one could say was, “I am well”, “I am not well” etc, deleting the sentences which did not apply. They told me the Gestapo had come looking for me, shortly after my departure in 1940. Finding nothing after one search they had left them alone thereafter. I leant that my uncle, Georges Laurent, had been involved in a Resistance group run by Robert Benoist, a well-known racing driver who had raced in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix before the war. Uncle Georges was also a friend of Robert’s brother, Maurice, who had a fine estate at Auffargis, near Rambouillet. Georges used to be regularly invited to shooting parties there and once took me with hiim. The group had received arms drops from the Special Operations Executive. They hid the arms on the estate. Robert Benoist was caught and executed. Georges was arrested and spent six months in Fresnes Prison.
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